TCS Daily

Dumb and Dumber: Revisiting Conservatives as the Stupid Party

By Orrin C. Judd - February 23, 2005 12:00 AM

It was likely John Stuart Mill, in 1866, who first dubbed conservatives the Stupid Party:

"I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it." [1]

And conservatives being both gentlemanly and partial, as Russell Kirk said, to the idea that "we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste," [2] have never much bothered to argue the point or stake a claim to brilliance. In fact, men of the Right have embraced the notion of conservatism's essential "stupidity," especially in contrast to the pretense of the Left that modernity, Enlightenment, and the Age of Reason have revealed new truths to supplant the old. Thus we find Isaiah Berlin reviving the metaphor of the Hedgehog and the Fox [3] -- with the simple-minded hedgehog representing conservatism, of course -- and Michael Oakeshott differentiating the conservative mind from the liberal as follows:

"There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind." [4]

The conservative, in other words, knows what his great-great-grandfather knew; the liberal thinks for himself.

Indeed, the most successful conservative presidents -- Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush -- have played up the notion of their own stupidity or at least not fought it very hard. Democratic presidents, on the other hand, have ostentatiously surrounded themselves with Brain Trusts and the Best and the Brightest; played up their ties to Harvard and Rhodes Scholarships; and even, in the case of Jimmy Carter, inflated their resumes to the point of claiming to be a nuclear physicist [5]. However, the tactical and strategic blunders of the Democratic Party over the last few years have been so spectacular that it may be time to reconsider the intellectual wattage of the respective parties.

What is most startling to observe these days is that the Democrats do not seem able, or willing, to learn from their most obvious mistakes. The most recent example of this blindness is the hysteria with which they've attacked an obscure Republican National Committee mailing about the new Democratic Senate Minority Leader, Reid All About It: Who is Harry Reid? [6], which makes the seemingly innocuous charge that Mr. Reid is "Determined to Obstruct President Bush's Agenda." A party with some sense of humor about itself would have laughed off the charge that the opposition was opposing. A party with some self-confidence would have seized on the piece as an opportunity for free publicity and said, "Dang right, he's going to obstruct the destruction of Social Security and the appointment of extremist judges!" Instead, the Democrats reacted with squeals of outrage. In so doing they turned it into a free publicity windfall for the Republicans and helped to establish a meme that the GOP will be able to exploit every time Senator Reid does work for Democratic interests instead of rolling over for the President.

One would think that a party that had just been through a rather similar episode would have had sense enough to avoid the tarbaby this time, but, no. Recall that just days after the Democratic Convention in Boston, which looked like lost footage from Apocalypse Now and relied almost completely on portraying their nominee's resume as beginning and ending in Vietnam, the Kerry campaign went on the attack against the Swift Vets [7] and their accusations that his war record was inflated. This turned a marginal group with comparatively little money -- who had only been able to advertise in very limited forums and had been so ignored by the mainstream media that the conservative partisan press was complaining about the "cover-up" [8] -- into major players in the political process.

The Swift Vets ad began running on August 5th, but it was not until the Kerry camp responded with what Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, described as a "rare Sunday-release spot," [9] on August 22nd, that the story really burst into the national spotlight. The results for the Senator were disastrous, as he ended up losing control of the campaign narrative, being forced to respond over and over again to charges that -- whether spurious or not -- he had effectively brought to the public's attention and forced the media to cover, and making the entire Vietnam vet storyline that he had made the premise of his candidacy into at least a mixed blessing and quite possibly a net negative. When the histories of Campaign 2004 are written they will surely express wonderment at how a professional political operation could have blundered so badly.

Senator Kerry and company are hardly the first folks ever to run an inept political operation, but should not his fellow Democrats have learned something from the bitter experience? In particular, mightn't they have noticed that their nemesis, George W. Bush, has succeeded in successive national campaigns by blithely ignoring rumors about everything from shady business dealings to preferential military treatment to cocaine use to secret abortions? Even the easier access to the mainstream media that activists of the Left enjoy has not enabled them to get such better-publicized stories to stick, in no small part because the President and his staff generally refuse to dignify these attacks with rebuttals. There's a pretty simple dynamic involved here: when the President, or any leader, says something it is automatically newsworthy and will get coverage, but when his many critics speak they join a babble that may or may not be heard. The last thing you want to do is pluck a voice from that whirlwind and hand over your own megaphone. But, once again, in the Harry Reid kerfuffle, we see Democrats doing just that. They've done the Republicans' heavy-lifting for them and elevated the notion of Mr. Reid as an obstructionist to center stage.

Even if the Left was never as reticent, we should be reluctant to label a whole political party "stupid." But the only other description that seems to fit this behavior pattern is insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. So, take your pick, stupidity or insanity?

[1] John Stuart Mill, letter to the Conservative MP, Sir John Pakington (March, 1866)

[2] Ten Conservative Principles (Russell Kirk, 1951, The Politics of Prudence)

[3] The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (Isaiah Berlin, 1951)

[4] Rationalism in politics (Michael Oakeshott, , Volume I, 1947, Cambridge Journal)

[5] "Law Day Address" (Jimmy Carter, University of Georgia, May 4, 1974)

[6] Reid All About It: Who is Harry Reid? (RNC Research Briefings, February 07, 2005)

[7] This band of brothers has a different view of Kerry (Collin Levey, 8/05/04, Seattle Times)

[8] The Not-So-Swift Mainstream Media: And how they were forced to cover a story they hated. (Jonathan V. Last, 09/06/2004, Weekly Standard)

[9] Kerry Fires at Vietnam 'Smear' (Howard Kurtz, 8/22/05, Washington Post)


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